Authorities said they're considering serious charges against a Minneapolis woman who was reaching for a cell phone when her car rear-ended another, killing a 14-month-old boy in the car ahead.
The toddler, Grayson Paul Earl Jett of Golden Valley, died Thursday afternoon of head injuries. The accident happened about 11 a.m. that day in the southbound lanes of Central Avenue NE. at 50th Avenue, in Columbia Heights.
Jessica Lyn Howe, 28, had dropped her phone and was reaching for it on the passenger-side floor of her car when she struck the car ahead of her, pushing it into a third vehicle, said Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office.
The boy, strapped in a car seat, and his father, Paul Jett, 38, were in the second car, which was stopped, as was the third car.
Sommer said authorities initially cited Howe for inattentive driving but then dismissed the citation.
"I think we're going to look at it to see if there's something more serious to charge her with," Sommer said. "If you can determine that the behavior was negligent beyond a simple mistake -- if it was egregious negligence -- then vehicular homicide would be considered."
Howe was not under arrest Friday and was cooperating, Sommer said. The fatally injured boy and Howe were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance. Howe was treated and later released. Paul Jett was not injured.
A test at the accident scene determined Howe had not been drinking, Sommer said.
There is a stoplight at the intersection, near a SuperAmerica store, and the speed limit is 40 miles per hour. Sommer said authorities didn't know how fast Howe was driving.
"Distracted driving is nothing new," he said. "Before, it was eating, talking to your passenger, shaving, putting on makeup; it's always been kind of prevalent. People do it without any thought.
"But people are tending to do more activities where they have to focus more on the device, more instances regarding texting and tweeting and checking e-mails. It's all completely possible, but unfortunately [it] causes more of a distraction."
State traffic records show that since 2000, Howe was cited three times for driving after withdrawal of her license, and cited for several traffic violations, including speeding, failing to obey a sign and making an improper lane change.
Telephone numbers listed to the Jett family were not working. Calls to Howe's family were not returned.
"That just breaks your heart," Minnesotans for Safe Driving founder Jon Cummings said of the boy's death. Many drivers have been similarly inattentive, Cummings said.
"The sad thing is that this 14-month-old pays with their life for just pretty much a mindless thing you've done a thousand times, and this one time, something happened," he said. "I'm sure that whoever did this would do anything to undo it, but you can't."
According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 23 percent of multiple vehicle crashes in the state in 2008 were caused by driver inattention or distraction, killing 74 people and injuring 9,000. Only 0.2 percent, according to data, were known to be caused by a driver on a cell phone. Cummings said that's partly because most drivers don't admit to having been on the phone at the time.
Abby Simons 612-673-4921